President Biden

FRONTLINE tells the story of how crisis and tragedy prepared Joe Biden to become America’s next president. Those who know him best describe the searing moments that shaped President-elect Biden and what those challenges reveal about how he will govern.

AIRED: January 19, 2021 | 0:54:22

>> NARRATOR: As the nation

reckons with the assault on democracy...

>> One of the darkest days in the history of our nation.

>> FRONTLINE tells the story of America’s next President.

>> This man who’s wanted to be president for half a century and

failed, and now finds himself at this moment of really abject

national crisis that’s when the country sees him for the first

time. >> It will test every bit of

what Joe Biden has learned over nearly 50 years in public

office. >> Now on FRONTLINE - President

Biden. >> As today, I announce my

candidacy for the president of the United States of America...

Friends, today I filed the necessary papers to become

candidate for president of the United States.

Today I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the

United States. >> When people get in the habit

of running for president, and in the habit of wanting the

presidency, and in the habit, when they reflect on their

lives, of thinking they could win, and they could be a good

president, that's a hard habit to break.

Dreams die hard. >> NARRATOR: In the 2020

election, Joe Biden's dream of the presidency was fading.

>> He was seen as yesterday's news.

He was a very rickety ship. He was not as eloquent as he was

30 years ago, like most people wouldn't be.

And he also, you know, he was saddled with a very, very long

record, some of it going back to the '70s.

>> From NBC News. "Decision 2020: The Democratic

Candidates' Debate." >> NARRATOR: At the first

primary debate, that long, complicated record was a

liability. >> I'm going to now direct this

at Vice President Biden. You opposed busing.

And, you know, there was a little girl in California who

was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,

and she was bused to school every day.

And that little girl was me. >> It wasn't about the specifics

of the busing debate. It was a signal.

It was saying that this is a white guy who is so old that he

was taking a position on busing in the first place.

>> But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today-- do you agree

today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?

>> Precisely because he has such a long track record in American

politics, you can point to him being on the wrong side of

questions that are now considered to be completely

settled. >> NARRATOR: In the weeks that

followed, things didn't get better.

>> Meanwhile, in a stunning reversal, Joe Biden's campaign

struggles to match rival presidential candidates in

fundraising. >> ...numbers are down among

women, down among independents. The drop is primarily among

younger voters. >> NARRATOR: He struggled to

excite voters. >> ...Vice President Joe Biden,

struggling in the polls here... >> Joe Biden-- is his campaign

in trouble? >> He did not look like an

effective candidate. He lacked energy often.

He wasn't as crisp as a lot of people had hoped he would be.

>> NARRATOR: His campaign was in crisis.

>> Joe Biden presently trailing in fourth place...

>> ...surprised how bad Joe Biden did-- he fled the stage...

>> One of his senior advisers had to call him and have what

she described to me as the conversation you never want to

have with a candidate, which is, "We may be approaching the point

of having to shut this thing down."

>> Joe Biden is fighting for his political survival.

>> NARRATOR: It was a moment of peril.

>> ...make-or-break time in particular for Joe Biden...

>> NARRATOR: But Joe Biden had been here before.

>> Biden, fighting to survive after a fourth straight...

>> This is a person who had suffered significant setbacks,

both personally and politically. And out of that I think he had

come to a sense of what his strengths and weaknesses really

were. >> We're talking about a

half-century in public life, during which he experienced,

multiple times, the setbacks, any one of which would have, and

has, driven out candidates to leaving public life.

So the improbability of where he finds himself is unprecedented

in American presidential history.

>> NARRATOR: His life had prepared him for this moment.

Shaped by challenges... >> Stuttering is a fear problem.

>> NARRATOR: Tragedy... >> An automobile accident killed

the wife and baby daughter of Biden of Delaware...

>> NARRATOR: Crisis... >> ...plagiarized a law review

article... >> NARRATOR: Perseverance.

>> Tonight his campaign is doing damage control.

>> The Biden legacy-- perseverance through personal

agony. ♪ ♪

>> (stammering): Hope to p... Teach P.E.

...two s... (stuttering on "S")

Uh, s... Sisters.

Well, my... ...father is very strict.

>> Among the many causes of retarded speech are low

intelligence, hearing loss, emotional conflicts, poor

methods of the teaching of talking by the parents, brain

injury, and many others. For example, a child may stutter

as he comes out of the early stages of retarded speech.

>> NARRATOR: Joe Biden's formative challenge: he

stuttered. >> He came of age in a,

another time, in which people... (stuttering softly)

...weren't as open about disorders or disabilities or

setbacks... (stuttering)

When the common... ...prescription was...

"Buck up. Deal with it."

>> NARRATOR: Dealing with it: a rough-and-tumble childhood

in Delaware, his father a car salesman fallen on hard times.

For little Joey, Catholic school.

Nuns. >> He had an assignment he

had to memorize. He had to stand up and deliver

it in the classroom. >> NARRATOR: The words were in

front of him: "Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentleman."

>> When Joe read it, it went... (claps out rhythm): "Sir Walter

Raleigh was a gentle man." "Say that again?"

Mmm... "Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentle

man." And this went on three times.

>> He said "gentle man" instead of "gentleman."

And... the nun said...

(imitating nun): "Mr. B-B-B-B-Biden, what's that

word?" And this is a person in a...

position of authority, this is a person who's meant to protect

you. >> It was so embarrassing and

so enraging that Biden walked out of the room, he walked out

of the school. He walked all the way home.

(car motor starts) >> NARRATOR: Joey's mom, Jean,

marched him back to the school to confront his teacher.

>> The sister starts telling her how disrespectful Joe is,

and my mother, "Stop." She said, "Just tell me, did

you make fun of my son?" "Well, I..."

"Sister, did you make fun of my son?"

"Well..." And my mother said, "Well, I'll

answer it for you. You sure in hell did.

And if you ever, ever, ever do that again, I'm going to come

back and I'm going to knock your bonnet right off your head.

Do we understand each other?" >> NARRATOR: Bullied, harassed,

ridiculed, he was hell-bent on beating the stutter.

>> Biden would stand in front of his bedroom mirror holding a

flashlight to his face, and he would recite Yeats and Emerson.

>> NARRATOR: He kept pushing-- against the stutter, the

bullies-- and it paid off. >> People liked to be around

him, he really had a presence. You knew him when he walked in.

He was a little taller than most, and in very good shape.

He was a star football player on their team.

>> NARRATOR: Joey Biden found another way to fight back:

politics. >> In high school, he's

president of his senior class. Honestly, that's when he gets a

taste for it. The stutter is still part of him

during his senior year in high school, where he has to

introduce his family at the, at graduation, and he has to

stand up there and not stutter, and say this publicly.

And he does it. >> We want Joe!

We want Joe! >> NARRATOR: In the crisis of

stuttering, a life method: persevere.

Just push through. >> More medical research to

confer-- to conquer devastating diseases like cancer, and...

Not the end in, um, um, in themselves...

The UAW took ex-- credible cuts in their future...

>> Many people would say Biden's stutter is among

his most visible weaknesses, if not number one.

But it's also a source of his strength.

It's also... The main source of his grit and

his... determination to just be

there, competing. ♪ ♪

>> ♪ Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy... ♪

>> NARRATOR: As he began his political career, Joe Biden

had a role model: Irish, Catholic, good-looking.

Joe emulated what he could. Kennedy was drawn to politics,

Biden was drawn to politics. Jack had a photogenic wife and

children. Joe had a photogenic wife and

children. The Kennedys had a family

compound at Hyannis Port. The Bidens would have a family

compound in Wilmington, Delaware.

>> Joe Biden was always fascinated by the Kennedy

mystique. He really saw himself as a

natural heir to that tradition. >> I'm Joe Biden and I'm a

candidate for the United States Senate.

Politicians have done such a job on the people that the people

don't believe them anymore, and I'd like a shot at changing

that. >> NARRATOR: But Wilmington was

no Hyannis Port. >> We, the Bidens, we had no

money. We had no power or influence.

We didn't know anybody who was a big name who could help us.

>> Hi, how are you? >> Hi, how are you?

>> Joe Biden's my name... >> NARRATOR: Like the crisis

over his stutter, his political start was a struggle.

Behind in the polls, facing a powerful opponent: United

States Senator Cale Boggs, an ally of President Richard Nixon.

>> Joe Biden asked me about getting involved in his

campaign. I started off by telling him

that "There's no way you can win."

>> "Audacious" is a good term to apply to Biden back then.

This is a guy who wasn't yet old enough to hold the seat.

>> NARRATOR: It was a time of crisis in the country.

The Vietnam War had divided Americans...

>> Opposition to the war in Vietnam has set off

demonstrations in several major cities.

>> NARRATOR: ...igniting social unrest.

In Delaware, racial tensions boiled over.

>> The National Guard was called out in several cities to put

down riots. One of these cities was

Wilmington, Delaware. >> NARRATOR: Black residents

were angry. Joe Biden saw an opportunity to

draw on his personal experience with race-- back when he was

19, working at an inner-city pool.

>> He was a lifeguard. He was one of the two white

guys. He was a tall, slim, uh...

young-looking, good-looking, Elvis Presley-looking kind of

guy. >> That's how he got to know

some of the guys who were in the gangs.

He just seemed to have a natural instinct for getting to know

people, getting to understand them, but not being afraid to be

around them. >> We became friends.

We became friends. I was a very troubled child.

Okay? Leader of a gang, no food at

home, electric cut off, no soap-- sometime no soap and

water to take a bath, no hot water.

>> NARRATOR: Joe and Ricky-- he likes to be called "Mouse"--

forged a lifetime friendship. Mouse introduced Joe all around

the neighborhood. Over the years, Biden kept in

touch, building relationships in the Black community that

would pay off. >> Some people are in politics

because they're in love with policy, but they're not

necessarily in love with humans.

He loves the game of it. He loves the dance of it.

He loves meeting people. He loves hugging strangers.

>> NARRATOR: It became his go-to strategy.

>> President Nixon's landslide didn't help the Republicans...

>> NARRATOR: And in 1972, that method worked.

>> Some of those who did lose had been considered the most

certain to win. >> NARRATOR: The Black community

helped make Joe Biden a winner. >> In Delaware...

>> NARRATOR: By less than 3,000 votes.

>> ...whipped by 29-year-old Joseph Biden.

>> It was very close. People were still surprised,

you know, how this even happened.

>> All of you have done something that the political

pundits said there was no way in the world it could be done!

>> (cheering) >> That night, all the

college kids were so excited. A lot of us went to the Hotel

Du Pont ballroom. And it was packed, packed.

And there was so much excitement in the air.

I saw this woman coming through the crowd, and I realized that

it was Neilia, Joe's wife. And so I walked up to her, and I

shook her hand, and I said, uh, "Congratulations on your win."

And she said, "Thank you very much."

And that was our exchange. (rotary phone dialing out)

(siren wailing) >> NARRATOR: Biden and his

sister Val were in Washington setting up the office, hiring a

staff, when the crisis hit. >> The phone rings, and Val

gets it. And Biden is sort of paying

attention, and then he really starts paying attention when he

sees her face. >> I got a call from Jimmy

Biden. And he said, "Come home, now.

There's been an accident." And Neilia was in the car, the

station wagon, with the three children, Beau, Hunt, and Naomi.

>> Neilia was literally bringing home the Christmas

tree, with the kids in the car, the three kids in the car.

(siren blaring) >> NARRATOR: Campaign flyers

from the car helped identify the bodies.

>> She was hit broadside by a tractor trailer.

And she and Naomi, who sat behind her in the car seat,

they died instantly. And Beau and Hunter were

seriously injured. >> And he... he knew, he knew.

He knew from the look on her face.

>> My brother looked at me and said, "She's dead, isn't she?"

And I said, "I don't know, Joey."

I did know. Jimmy told me.

>> NARRATOR: He got to the boys; they were all that was left.

Broken hips, legs, arms, Beau was all cut up and Hunter's

skull was fractured. >> Since the accident, Biden

himself's been living at a hospital in Wilmington,

Delaware, taking care of his sons.

>> Today, the senator took his swearing-in ceremony...

>> Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware...

>> NARRATOR: Somehow, Biden pulled it together.

They held a swearing-in ceremony at the hospital.

>> It means a lot to me. I appreciate it, and I hope

that I can be a good senator for y'all.

I make this one promise, that if in six months or so, there's a

conflict between my being a good father and being a good

senator, which I hope will not occur-- I thought would, but I

hope it won't-- I promise you that I will, will contact

Governor-elect Tribbitt, as I had earlier, and tell him that

we can always get another senator, but they can't get

another father. >> NARRATOR: The road ahead for

Joe Biden would be tough, like the fight against

stuttering and the uphill political battle.

Once again, in crisis, he would persevere.

>> Valerie's going to help raise the children.

He's going to have a job in Washington and a home in

Wilmington, and he's going to ride that train back and forth.

He's going to be home for dinner every night with his kids and

his sister. And that's going to be the

family unit. It's not the one he chose, but

that's going to be the one. >> You don't lose a wife and

child at the point in life that he did and not grow from it.

You learn from those kinds of experiences.

What you do, though, is, like, uh, Muhammad Ali said one time,

"I've never been knocked down. I was always been getting up."

So Joe just never been knocked down, he's always been

getting up. (gavel banging)

>> Senator Biden. >> Thank you very much, Mr.

Chairman. I, I truly appreciate the

opportunity to sit in on this hearing...

>> NARRATOR: From his earliest days in the Senate, Joe Biden

was determined to make a name for himself.

>> You can't convince me that the guy you're kicking back to

isn't saying to you or one of your agents at some point, "Hey

look, I'm getting $100,000 from you, but Harry over here, he's

getting a $175,000," from uh, uh, whomever else.

You mean you guys didn't know that was going on?

>> He was seen as a bit of a show horse at first.

He was not someone who was waiting his turn.

In fact, he was fighting as hard for attention and notoriety and

the ability to stay as a U.S. Senator as anyone was.

>> His ambitions were never even thinly disguised.

He talked about it not long after he came to the Senate and

made clear that being in the Senate itself was not the only

thing he might want to do in life.

>> NARRATOR: What he wanted to do was become president.

(crowd cheering) >> Thank you very much!

>> NARRATOR: And by 1987, he thought he was ready.

It was a family affair. The boys were older, he had

remarried, had a new daughter. >> You know he said, "Let's just

test the waters. And so I said, "All right."

It sort of just snowballed. And we were into it, really,

before we even knew it. >> NARRATOR: But as he

campaigned, he headed towards another crisis, stemming from a

persistent question: what did he stand for?

>> I think that's always been one of his challenges as he

tries to go for president, he casts about for what he wants to

say. He casts about for the issues he

wants to put forward, and what he wants to say he believes in.

And it, and it feels cast about. >> NARRATOR: Then, one day,

a video of a British politician and a story that would give him

something to say. >> Why am I the first

Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to

university? >> NARRATOR: Obsessed with the

tape, Biden studied it. He later wrote, "The ad was

riveting; I couldn't take my eyes off Neil Kinnock."

>> Was it because they were weak?

Those people who could work eight hours underground and then

come up and play football? Weak?

>> Biden could put himself into the Neil Kinnock story, family

in Scranton, Pennsylvania, family in the mines.

And so, in a sense, he absorbed the Kinnock story and making it

his own. >> The campaign begins in

earnest with the first votes for the next president in Iowa.

>> The candidates spent much of yesterday fanned out...

>> NARRATOR: In Iowa, during the primary, he took Kinnock's

words, made them his own. >> And now Mr. Biden.

>> Thank you very much. I started thinking as I was

coming over here, "Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in

his family ever to go to a university?"

>> He got up there and he gave his speech, and he got to the

end, the last three minutes, and he gave Kinnock, but he did not

attribute it to Kinnock. >> Is it because they didn't

work hard? My ancestors who worked in the

coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come up

after 12 hours and play football for four hours?

>> Joe Biden borrowed it and applied it to his own life, and

made a moving sort of aria, a moving sort of part of a speech

about his own life, which in fact had been taken from Neil

Kinnock. >> Biden seems to be claiming

Kinnock's vision-- and life-- as his own.

>> NARRATOR: It became front- page news.

>> Biden has been caught with a sudden embarrassing comparison

of his recent campaign speeches. The first example came from

Great Britain. >> Why am I the first Kinnock

in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?

>> And I started thinking as I was coming over here, "Why is it

that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a

university?" >> NARRATOR: His campaign said

it was a mistake, that he had cited Kinnock other times.

>> For a second time in two weeks...

>> NARRATOR: But then, the avalanche.

>> He looks like a Joe Biden wind-up doll, with somebody

else's words coming out... >> NARRATOR: Allegations of

failing to cite a source in a law school paper...

>> Plagiarized a law review article...

>> NARRATOR: Taking lines from his political idols, the

Kennedys... >> One from John Kennedy's

inaugural, others from Robert Kennedy-- their words from the

lips of Joe Biden. >> Joe Biden comes off as

someone who has a lot of self confidence, but obviously

there's an imposter syndrome dynamic at work here.

Because if you feel like you have to make up stuff about

yourself and invent stories that are not your own, and then do it

in such a self-destructive way in which you can be caught, that

speaks to a level of character, and certainly insecurity, that

is common in lot of politicians.

>> Delightful to see you all here.

You know my wife, Jill. >> Pulling out of the 1987

presidential race was really devastating to, to Joe and to me

and to our family. >> Thanks, folks, my wife and I

thank you very much. >> NARRATOR: Biden lost this

fight... >> Delaware Senator Joseph

Biden dropped out of the hunt... >> Joe Biden blames mostly

himself for blowing it. >> NARRATOR: But he believed

he'd have another chance. He returned to the Senate to

rebuild. >> It wasn't as though, having

lost in 1988, he faded away or disappeared.

He has positions in the Senate that give him power and clout

and, in a sense, a national platform from which to continue

to kind of project himself as a leader of the Democratic Party.

>> Committee chairman Joseph Biden opens confirmation

hearings for the nation's 106th nominee...

>> NARRATOR: He concentrated on his job as the chairman of the

powerful Senate judiciary committee.

>> President Bush says the American people are supporting

his choice for the Supreme Court.

>> NARRATOR: It was there he would face his biggest challenge

yet-- the controversy over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to

the Supreme Court. >> Good evening, we begin

tonight with the potential for political explosion on Capitol

Hill. >> Clarence Thomas ran into

trouble today... >> Questions are growing over

charges of sexual harassment against Thomas...

>> NARRATOR: This affidavit charged that Thomas sexually

harassed a former employee, Anita Hill.

>> It seems to have been a nightmare for Joe Biden.

As a man, he felt uncomfortable about it.

As a white man, he felt uncomfortable taking Clarence

Thomas, a Black man, on about it.

Um, and the whole subject matter just made him incredibly

uncomfortable. >> But committee chairman Biden

conceded tonight that new information about the

allegations... >> Drama and history...

>> NARRATOR: With the crisis growing, Anita Hill was called

to testify. >> The hearing will come to

order. >> Anita Hill comes to

Washington to tell the Senate her side.

>> Welcome, Professor Hill. >> ...for what everyone

anticipates will be... >> Professor, do you swear to

tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help

you God? >> I do.

>> Thank you. >> NARRATOR: Biden's committee

was all white men. The "Men of the Senate," as

they were called. >> There was not a single woman

who might have understood her story from a woman's point of

view. >> Can you tell the committee

what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you

have alleged? >> I think the one that was the

most embarrassing was his discussion of, of pornography

involving these women with large breasts and, and engaged

in a variety of sex with different people or animals.

That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made

me feel the most humiliated. >> Here in Illinois, women were

just mesmerized by the hearings, outraged at what had happened.

They looked up and saw a very non-diverse United States Senate

judiciary committee. There was not a woman there, not

to mention person of color. It was just all these, like,

cookie cutters, and folks were really horrified by it.

>> Let me now yield to my friend from Pennsylvania, Senator

Specter. >> NARRATOR: Biden's close

friend, Republican Arlen Specter, led the charge against

Hill. >> I find the references to the

alleged sexual harassment not only unbelievable, but

preposterous. >> NARRATOR: He cast doubt on

her memory. >> How reliable is your

testimony in October of 1991 on events that occurred eight, ten

years ago? >> NARRATOR: He suggested she

was exaggerating. >> You took it to mean that

Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you, but in fact he never

did ask you to have sex, correct?

>> No, he did not ask me to have sex.

>> That was an inference that you drew?

>> Yes, yes. >> Thank you, Professor Hill.

>> There were these searing images of this all-white panel,

Joe Biden right in the middle of it, grilling Anita Hill,

sometimes in quite hostile fashion.

And Joe Biden was seen as a real sort of ringleader to that.

>> NARRATOR: Biden gave Clarence Thomas the last word.

He strongly denied the allegations.

>> This is a circus. It's a national disgrace.

And from my standpoint as a Black American, as far as I'm

concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks by a

committee of the U.S., U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a

tree. >> Very powerful.

I mean, what it did was, it shamed these white senators.

And it certainly seemed to shame the Democrats, who had

just been accused of lynching a Black man.

(gavel bangs) >> NARRATOR: Biden would end up

voting against Thomas, but his handling of the hearing damaged

him politically. >> It made him the face of an

out-of-touch body. And really wounded his

prospects of a future run for president.

He had some work to do, he had some reputational rehab to do.

>> NARRATOR: Biden turned to his method for survival in crisis:

acknowledge the problem and repair the damage.

>> Joe is always able to say, "Yeah, I didn't handle that

quite right. Let me see what I can do better

the next time." >> Carol Moseley Braun has

entered political history. She's the first African American

woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

>> Big changes here, a kind that have history written all over

them. >> NARRATOR: "Fixing things"

began by recruiting the first Black woman elected to the

United States Senate. >> Braun's anger over the

Clarence Thomas hearings turned her into a candidate.

>> NARRATOR: Biden wanted to make sure Moseley Braun joined

his committee. >> I made a joke, which he

didn't think was funny at all. I said, "You just want Anita

Hill on the other side of the table."

He did not laugh. He didn't think it was funny.

And he still probably doesn't. (laughs)

>> NARRATOR: He would end up convincing her and Dianne

Feinstein to join the committee. Joe Biden was rebuilding with an

eye on the ultimate prize: the presidency.

>> Half a dozen times in his career he faces moments like

this where a normal person looks in the mirror and says,

"This is never going to happen for me, either because my time

has passed or because I've humiliated myself or because

I've been on the wrong side of an issue."

And he just keeps coming back. >> Another day, another entry

in the presidential race. Delaware Senator Joe Biden is

the ninth Democrat to jump... >> NARRATOR: It was 2007.

Joe Biden was running for president, again.

But that very day... >> It sure isn't easy running

for president these days... >> NARRATOR: It all blew up.

>> This was not a good day for Joe Biden, was it?

>> No, it really wasn't, Katie. >> ...just got into the race

today, and no sooner than he did, he talks his way into a

national controversy. >> ...spent much of the day

discussing these comments he made to a newspaper reporter

about Senator Barack Obama. >> I mean, you got the first

sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and

bright and, and clean, and a nice-looking guy, I mean, it's,

that's a storybook, man. >> Some people listening to

those descriptions of Obama-- "articulate," "clean"-- heard

racial overtones, or, at the very least, condescension.

>> I think when people heard the "clean and articulate" line,

there was a wave of eye-rolling, certainly among African

Americans. It was the kind of

well-intentioned but benighted commentary that you expect from

people who inhabit environments where there aren't very many

Black people, and the United States Senate has historically

been a prime example of that. >> Tonight, his campaign is

doing damage control. >> Joe Biden's apologizing for a

remark he made about Senator Barack Obama...

>> NARRATOR: In the months that followed...

>> Joe Biden dropped out of the race last night after finishing

poorly... >> NARRATOR: Once again,

Joe Biden's campaign would collapse.

>> The latest news is that Joe Biden is dropping out of the

race. >> NARRATOR: But he wasn't

taking himself out of the game. He'd make it personal-- build

a relationship with Obama. >> Out of competition came

mutual respect, and mutual respect led to a real

relationship, a friendship. And Joe Biden became somebody

that President Obama looked to for advice and counsel.

>> Senator... (people talking in background)

>> You are not going to get anything out of me on the vice

presidential thing-- nothing. >> NARRATOR: Soon, that

relationship would pay off, as Obama sought a running mate.

>> I am gonna say that I've, I've made the selection, and

that's all you're going to get. >> When Barack ran he needed the

support of someone who knew his way around government.

And that was Joe Biden. >> NARRATOR: Obama asked him to

be on his ticket as vice president.

At the house in Wilmington, the Biden inner circle

gathered. >> He was not going to do it.

I mean, there's no doubt he was not going to do it.

We had another one of those family meetings and a few key,

key people. >> The kids said to me, "Mom,

you have to talk Dad into running."

And I said, "Joe, this is such a great moment in history."

>> His ma said, "Well, well, Joey"-- she called him Joey--

she said, "Well, Joey, you're telling me that the first

African-American president in history thinks that you can

help him get elected, and you're saying no?"

Game, set, match, it was over. (laughs)

>> Barack Obama is projected to be the next president.

>> Senator Barack Obama of Illinois...

>> NARRATOR: He'd turned a political crisis into a

relationship, and became vice president.

>> 47 years old, he'll become the president...

>> He had already squared away in his mind that he understood

that Barack Obama was president, Joe was vice president.

And Joe understood the job of vice president and, and, uh...

and wore it well. >> NARRATOR: In the Obama White

House, Biden brought with him something the president didn't

have: relationships in Congress spanning decades.

>> These were his recently former colleagues, and he knew

that he could call them and they would take his call, and that he

could go and thrash issues out with them with a degree of

comfort that President Obama didn't have, because he hadn't

known them as long as Vice President Biden.

>> NARRATOR: Biden became Obama's trusted partner.

>> The real question isn't what thing did you do, if you're vice

president. The real question is, how much

influence did you have? And I think Biden understands

power and leveraging power. I think he had a genuine

relationship with Obama, and they spent a lot of time

talking. But I think he was a very

influential vice president, in that way, and an extremely loyal

vice president. >> NARRATOR: In return, Obama

bestowed on Biden something special-- a kind of political

sainthood they called the "Obama halo."

>> Joe Biden has the Obama halo, everybody knows that.

That is the cleansing of Joe Biden and everything that may

have happened. And there is such a great irony,

that someone who was the architect of the '94 crime bill,

and a white man of this age, when you think about Anita

Hill, his crutch, his... the reason for his success is a

Black man with a funny name who's kind of skinny from Hawaii

by way of Kansas. >> Black lives matter!

Black lives matter! Black lives matter!

>> NARRATOR: In those years as vice president, Biden would

confront yet more crises. Among them: the building racial

tensions... >> Don't touch me.

>> NARRATOR: Growing outrage over police violence against

African Americans. >> Black lives matter!

Black lives matter! >> NARRATOR: Then, news of a

revenge shooting against the police.

>> We begin tonight with breaking news.

A deadly police shooting in New York City.

>> Two New York City police officers are dead following an

ambush Saturday afternoon. >> They were, quite simply,

assassinated. >> Amateur video captured the

frantic scene, as paramedics desperately tried to save the

lives of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

>> NARRATOR: When it came to matters of race, Obama relied on

Biden to walk a fine line he could not.

>> One of Joe Biden's chief responsibilities was to be an

ambassador to the country, specifically to the white parts

of the country, where Barack Obama's presence might have only

further inflamed the situation. >> NARRATOR: Now Biden was

dispatched to New York. >> 25,000 police officers are

all there... >> NARRATOR: It was tense.

>> A sea of blue filled the city streets...

>> NARRATOR: He used his method: keep it personal, talk directly

to the family of Officer Rafael Ramos.

>> Our hearts ache for you. I know from personal experience

that there is little anyone can say or do at this moment to,

to ease the pain, that sense of loss, that sense of loneliness.

>> Joe Biden has been defined in public life by heartbreak and

empathy. That when Joe Biden steps up at

the funeral, you know that those tears are real.

>> ...that the time will come. The time will come when Rafael's

memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a

tear to your eyes. That's when you know it's going

to be okay. I know it's hard to believe

it'll happen, but I promise you, I promise you it will happen.

>> It's an odd role in public life to be known as a person

associated with grief. And Joe Biden never wanted to be

that person, actually. It was not how he imagined his

own political future. ("Taps" playing)

But because of his life, he ended up being this public

political symbol of suffering and of resilience.

And eventually he embraced it. But he actually didn't want to

be that. ("Taps" continues)

>> NARRATOR: That day, there was unfinished business.

Biden wanted to see Officer Wenjian Liu's family.

>> We came out of the church. And Joe said, "I want to offer

my condolences to him, as well, to them, to that family."

(siren beeping) >> He wanted to go and meet them

and talk with them. So the police worked it out so

that we could visit. And they had a translator there.

>> I can remember walking up the stairs with the, with an

interpreter. And the family was all crammed

into this tiny kitchen. And we sat and we talked to

them. And we must have been in

there, I don't know, a good hour.

>> I started to notice that Wenjian Liu's father had rarely

left my side. Occasionally, he would lean into

me so that his shoulder touched my arm.

"Thank you," he kept saying. "Thank you, thank you."

>> We went out on the sidewalk. And the father, who didn't even

speak English, I mean, just held on to Joe.

And, I mean, he was so grateful that Joe had come to offer

condolences to the family. >> We stood there for a long

while, embracing on the little sidewalk in front of the house

where he had lived with his only son, just two fathers.

I understood all that he wanted me to know.

>> NARRATOR: After decades in politics, Biden seemed to have

finally found his place. But soon after the crisis in New

York-- yet again a personal crisis.

(pipes and drums playing) Biden was burying his own son,

Beau. (pipes and drums playing)

>> He was the apple of Biden's eye.

He was not just someone who he thought was brilliant and

successful and so proud of him. It went beyond pride, it was

almost like, "He's the perfect version of me."

>> NARRATOR: Beau had served in Iraq.

He was attorney general of Delaware.

They talked about the presidency someday.

>> Joe often describes him as Joe 2.0.

And he looked like his dad, he had a lot of the same skill sets

as his father-- he was very charismatic, he was charming, he

was funny. >> NARRATOR: But then, brain

cancer. Death at 46.

>> Beau Biden, former Delaware attorney general and eldest son

of Vice President Joe Biden, died...

>> ...Vice President Biden's office was the first to announce

his son's death... >> ...vice president was with

his son Beau when he passed away tonight...

>> Very sad news, Beau Biden lost his battle with brain

cancer. >> Family and friends gathered

at St. Anthony's Church in Wilmington yesterday to pay

their respects-- some waited in line for up to six hours.

>> Lines, lines five blocks long outside the church.

>> NARRATOR: At one point, after several hours, a surprise.

>> There was Mr. Liu and his wife.

And they came to, uh... give us comfort.

It was just two men, really, who had gone through something

horrible, um, just offering comfort to one another.

>> NARRATOR: Before Beau's death, Biden had been

considering another run for president.

Now the question was not just "would he," but "could he?"

>> I was, happened to be in Obama's White House, and he

walked in. And I honestly...

It was almost like I didn't recognize him.

This was shortly after Beau died.

He just looked like he had aged years and years in such a short

amount of time. >> NARRATOR: Through crisis and

tragedy, Joe Biden had his eyes on the presidency, but now, in

grief, he would decide to stand down.

>> Please raise your right hand and repeat after me.

I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

>> I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

>> NARRATOR: For the first time in decades, Joe Biden was a

private citizen, watching Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency.

>> So help me God. >> So help me God.

>> Congratulations, Mr. President.

(cheers and applause) ♪ ♪

>> White lives matter! White lives matter!

White lives matter! White lives matter!

White lives matter! >> Then came Charlottesville.

That was really the tipping point.

When he heard President Trump say, "There are very fine, some

very fine people on both sides," that was it.

That was the tipping point. >> NARRATOR: Biden watched,

increasingly alarmed, violent clashes between white

supremacists and counter protestors.

>> It's hard to believe, based on his own statements, that Joe

Biden doesn't see some level of personal responsibly for the

rise of Donald Trump. Joe Biden was the vice president

and he chose not to run for president.

You have to imagine that's weighed pretty heavily on Joe

Biden. >> NARRATOR: He decided to do

something about it. At 76 years old, he would run

one more time. >> Today I am announcing my

candidacy for president of the United States.

>> Through the Democratic primaries, he was not, you know,

at the top of his game. He kind of staggered along.

He didn't do terribly well when the voting started.

>> Joe Biden appearing to shrug off an apparent fourth place

finish in Iowa... >> NARRATOR: Fourth in Iowa.

>> Biden may not have enough cash even to make it through

Super Tuesday... >> NARRATOR: Fifth in New

Hampshire. >> After three straight losses,

Joe Biden is now... >> NARRATOR: But he stuck with

his playbook... >> ...certainly damaged his

fundraising ability... >> NARRATOR: Stay in the center,

make personal connections, reach out to Black voters.

>> As he ages, he's a better candidate every time.

He does not waver. He does not appear to be a guy

who goes with the wind, even when he appears to be losing and

out of step with his own party. >> Joe Biden desperately needs

South Carolina if he has any chance...

>> NARRATOR: His last hope... >> ...make or break time in

particular for Joe Biden... >> NARRATOR: ...South Carolina.

>> all rests on South Carolina...

>> Joe Biden had spent a lot of time in South Carolina.

He can relate to South Carolinians.

South Carolina was very, very important to Joe Biden.

>> ...NBC News is projecting former Vice President Joe Biden

is the winner... >> NARRATOR: And the state's

Black voters gave him a victory. >> ...was reinvigorated largely

by Black voters in this state... >> Joe Biden wins big...

>> NARRATOR: Three days later... >> In a political earthquake,

these are the results nobody saw coming.

>> NARRATOR: ...he rode the momentum and dominated Super

Tuesday. >> He pulled off one of the

biggest political upsets in modern political history.

>> NARRATOR: Soon, he'd win the nomination.

(cheers and applause) >> In its own way, it's the

culmination of all of his training and ambition and his

mistakes and his regrets and his attempts to be better.

And it, and it came together. At last.

>> Biden has made his pick. >> NARRATOR: And when the time

came... >> ...historic decision from

former Vice President Joe Biden. >> NARRATOR: ...he turned to

the opponent who'd gone after him on the campaign trail,

Kamala Harris. >> ...Kamala Harris as his

running mate. >> NARRATOR: ...and picked her

as his running mate. >> ...African American community

will help propel him to the White House.

>> It was an opportunity for him to distinguish himself from

Donald Trump. "That I actually want to bring

the person who's criticized me most harshly into the fold

because I value dissenting opinions."

And that was part of the message that was being sent with Kamala

Harris. >> ...the coronavirus crisis in

this country is taking a dangerous turn...

>> The true cost of COVID, measured not by numbers, but

families... >> NARRATOR: He ran for

president in the midst of a profound national crisis...

>> COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the

U.S... >> Unemployment now soaring to

14.7%... >> Millions of Americans on

the brink of financial ruin. >> The moment plays to his

strengths in ways that other moments he ran probably did not.

>> has been double the trauma, first the global

pandemic and now the traumatic death of George Floyd.

>> A new wave of grief in the form of police brutality.

>> We're living in a country that's experienced, in 2020, a

ton of loss. >> ...disappointment, emptiness,

hopelessness, and so much fear. >> And here you have a man whose

life has been defined in a lot of ways by loss.

>> NARRATOR: Joe Biden told voters he understood and

promised he would be there for them.

>> You folks at home, how many of you got up this morning

and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone

died of COVID? How many of you are in a

situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn't even

speak to them, you had a nurse holding a phone up so you could

in fact you could say goodbye. >> You would have lost far more

people. Far more people.

You would have been... >> ...and by the way...

>> It's sort of a political story you could not have

imagined. This man who's wanted to be

president for half a century and failed to do it over and over,

and now finds himself at this moment of really abject national

crisis, and that's the moment when the country sees him for

the first time, really. >> We've reached a historic

moment in this election. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is elected

the 46th president of the United States.

>> NARRATOR: Finally, after five decades-- victory.

>> And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will receive the most

votes of any presidential ticket ever.

>> The people of this nation have spoken.

They've delivered us a clear victory, a convincing victory, a

victory for we, the people. (cheers and applause)

>> NARRATOR: Now Joe Biden faces his biggest challenge yet.

>> I don't think any president, certainly in my lifetime, has

faced the problems that Joe Biden will face as the new

president-- the pandemic, a weakened economy, the racial

issues that are on the table. To do it when the country is as

divided as it is will test every bit of what Joe Biden has

learned over nearly 50 years in public office.

>> Go to for

the latest FRONTLINE “Transparency Project”.

Explore dozens of interviews from the film.

>> Joe Biden has been defined in public life by heartbreak and

empathy. >> You’re talking about a half

century in public life. >> And check out our podcast

with director Michael Kirk. >> Is he right for the times? If

he is, it’s a presidency for the century.

>> Connect with FRONTLINE on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

and watch anytime on the PBS App or

Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH >> For more on this and other

"Frontline" programs, visit our website at


"President Biden" is available on Amazon

Prime Video. ♪ ♪


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